Alice Fordham

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The Syrian regime may be on the verge of an important advance in that country's civil war. Rebels said today that they've agreed to a conditional retreat from parts of the city of Homs. The forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have made a big push there lately.

NPR's Alice Fordham has the latest.

Iraqis are voting for Parliament Wednesday for the first time since American soldiers withdrew more than two years ago. Without their support, and amid intense violence, the poll will test Iraq's fragile democracy to its limits.

The election is for the 328-seat Parliament and offers more than 9,000 candidates on party lists. It will probably end up with no party winning a majority and lead to weeks or months of coalition haggling to form a new government.

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Low to the dusty ground, by a reed-fringed river and a lush date palm orchard, is the farmhouse where Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, grew up.

The place is Junaja, one of hundreds of poor, Shiite Muslim farming towns in southern Iraq. Donkey carts jog alongside battered buses. No monument, no ostentation honors Maliki. The only new thing in town is the mosque.

Sunday is the deadline for Syrian President Bashar Assad to hand over his government's chemical weapons stockpile, and he will have surrendered the vast majority of his declared arsenal.

Some call this a triumph. Others say Assad used the deal to buy time for brutal offensives in the civil war raging through the country. Western governments are investigating reports of more chemical attacks, although Russian officials said Friday that Assad's forces did not use chemical weapons.

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The renegade Islamist group known as ISIS now controls swaths of Syria and Iraq, and it's partly because the fighters are so rich. ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is known for having the biggest guns and paying the highest salaries.

While kidnapping, oil smuggling and donations from sympathizers have been well-known sources of money, the groups also run complex and brutal protection rackets, according to analysts.

The Syrian city of Homs has been a rebel stronghold since the anti-government uprising began. But one rebel tells NPR that they're low on ammunition and medical gear.

Violence has reignited in western Iraq, with Islamist fighters taking over much of Anbar province three months ago. A renegade al-Qaida group has set up its headquarters in Fallujah — the city where hundreds of U.S. soldiers died a decade ago, trying to wrest it from insurgent control.

But this time, the enemy isn't the U.S. and it's not just extremists fighting. Ordinary Sunnis in Anbar, furious at what they call years of discrimination by the Shiite-dominated government, have joined the militants' battle against the Iraqi army.

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The extremists now committing a wave of attacks in Iraq's Anbar province are better trained, funded and equipped than the al-Qaida-linked groups American soldiers battled there, says Brett McGurk, one of the State Department's top officials for Iraq.

The militants, who have drawn strength amid the war in Syria over the border, have taken over parts of Anbar over the last three months.

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Riding the bus to Beirut's southern suburbs used to be a bumpy, crowded but fun experience. Everyone crammed in next to each other, bouncing around on the way to the area they call the Dahiyeh, the Arabic word for "suburb."

This sprawling southern district of Lebanon's capital is the place where the Shiite militant group Hezbollah enjoys its strongest support. But it is also a bustling, residential area. There are garages and vegetable stalls. And in the center of the neighborhood, there are juice bars and cafes.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. And we have an update now on the efforts to end the civil war in Syria. Representatives of both the government and opposition are wrapping a second round of peace talks in Geneva, but they made little progress at the conference, raising questions about whether a third round of talks will happen. NPR's Alice Fordham is in Geneva and joins us on the line with the latest.

And Alice, first, sum up this round of the peace talks for us.

The Syrian peace talks in Geneva are in deep trouble. Representatives of the opposition met a delegation from Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime several times this week. But the two sides can't agree on an agenda.

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The ongoing Syrian peace talks in Geneva have raised hopes for humanitarian relief in cities, towns, and villages across the country that are under siege by government or rebel forces. And no place is more in need than the central city of Homs, whose residents were among the first to rise up against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

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